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DeLucie and Largotta on One Year of Bill's Food & Drink

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Sean Largotta and John DeLucie by Daniel Krieger

Just a little over a year ago, John DeLucie and his partners at Crown Group Hospitality opened Bill's Food & Drink. Like Crown and The Lion before it, Bill's was the Crown Group revamp of an iconic New York restaurant space, in this case the legendary 90-year-old Bill's Gay Nineties. The original Bill's was a well-loved watering hole, and not everyone has loved the revamp, but the place is still busy, and usually packed enough that the team is working on opening up a back room for more dining space. Here's John DeLucie and Crown Group's managing partner, Sean Largotta on the renovation process, the impact of Hurricane Sandy, and how they feel about reviewers:

This used to be Bill's Gay Nineties. How did the decision to take it over and revamp it come about?
Sean Largotta: Like a lot of these things come about. Crown, Bill's, The Lion, all the same thing. Mark [Amadei], our partner, was walking through with a girlfriend of his, and he said "This place is amazing, you have to see. It's a townhouse amongst all these skyrises. It has a history." And it kind of fit what we enjoy embracing, like old places having an old soul. John and I went to Hong Kong, we went to a few steakhouses, and it started evolving from that. We didn't really force anything, we just took some inspiration, and it was a great design.

John DeLucie: We see places and we go, "Wouldn't it be cool to bring it back to how it was?" I used to work next door at Oceana...when it was Oceana many years ago. And I'd come here and drink, and there would be singing, and it would be such a crazy place. So then when Mark said, "Hey, you have to see this place." I was like, "You gotta be kidding me!" It's the kind of place you didn't think would ever be available.

Is it scary to take over such an iconic place and revamp it like that?
JD: Scary? Absolutely. For me, going back as long as I've been opening restaurants, you build them and you hope to God people are gonna come. You don't know. You try to do everything right, and the first day you open you go, "Yikes." And then people come. But it's never a slam dunk.

SL: It's very challenging, especially with older buildings too. When you're dealing with an archaic institution, we really didn't want to take a lot, because when you start opening the stuff up, you start taking the walls down, you don't want to do that, so that was very challenging. And then Sandy came and that was the worst thing that could possibly happen, because we were opening that week. And that shut us down for another month. We delayed our opening a month because of it.

JD: This was closed, Lion was closed, Windsor was closed, it was really tough.

SL: Crown was the only thing that was open because it was above 60-something Street. Gas was supposed to get turned on the day of the storm. And obviously with that we were the least of the DOB's priorities. ConEd was like, "We have millions of people [without power], we're not worried about turning a restaurant in Midtown on." So we went to the bottom of the list again and had to wait our turn. That was pretty painful

JD: Lots of calamity.

Was there anything in particular that you wanted to try to keep the same about Bill's?
SL: The saloon downstairs.

JD: We wanted to keep everything. We just wanted it to be clean, and we wanted it to be functional. We wanted a new kitchen, because there were things that had to change. But the vibe and all this history, we wanted to keep that.

SL: And we found a lot of it nestled underneath the walls, too. Like the mural downstairs was behind sheetrock. It was from the 40s, we didn't even know it was covered up. Our guys know how we are about things, if there's exposed brick or moldings we're not the type to fabricate over it or make it look like it existed when it didn't. So when we saw the mural it was just unbelievable. Honestly, John's background in American food, that's what was missing. I would come here for a beer with my friends and never went upstairs. No one ever really ate here. I went upstairs when I was looking at it and it was empty. It was shocking to me. The beams were here, the molding was here, the stuff that you see, but there was no one in here. Downstairs was bustling, it was beautiful. Great energy walking by hearing it.

JD: Yeah the doors were open and you could hear the piano on Madison Avenue.

SL: It's kinda cool, especially in Midtown, where you're usually hearing cars, and after 8:00 p.m. it's really quiet around here, but you'd hear the saloon downstairs.

JD: Other than the '21' Club, I'm not sure of any restaurants that are in townhouses any longer. In Midtown.

SL: Yeah it's unique.

How is this neighborhood different from other neighborhoods?
SL: This we knew was going to be a local spot. For the guys after work, media people.

JD: Right, and lots of people who live east of Madison.

SL: So it wasn't like Lion or the Waverly where you're gonna get the below 24th crowd, where you had more people in suits and stuff like that. So it was pretty fun to see that, and we've taken a leap of faith to go in different neighborhoods. We just don't want to replicate the same thing over and over.

JD: This is a working neighborhood. People are here early in the morning and a lot of them leave. At five, six o'clock they're on their way home. So you've got a very, very small window to capture them.

How do you feel about the review process? I know that reviewers have not always been kind to you guys.
JD: Honestly, I don't think we're ever going to be reviewed fairly. Just because of who we are, and what we do, and who we cater to. So we have to put our best foot forward, make the best possible product we can, give the best service that we possibly can, and hope for the best.

In what ways does what you're doing or who you cater to diverge from what a reviewer is looking for?
JD: I think we've been accused, but not rightfully so, of catering to the one percenters. I think we cater to a lot of people. Really there's something here specifically for everyone. From a $19 hamburger to a beautiful, big, gnarly steak and a barolo. I think for some reason me being at the Waverly Inn initially just creates that kind of buzz, like, "Oh, celebrities go there." But everybody comes here. Office workers, celebrities...

SL: When you hear the same thing over and over, sometimes you just hope that your customers feel a different way and embrace us.

JD: And we know that they do. The wouldn't come back if they didn't.

So have those reviews affected the way you do things at all?
JD: Just my tender ego.

SL: It doesn't affect me at all. Honestly, when we get something nasty back from a customer, it's a major problem for us. That's what I really care about. I mean, c'mon, these reviewers come to our place once a year and review us. Is it a platform for some places? Yeah, it's great. But at the end of the day it's the guys who come in our door every day that we cater to. That's who I really care about.

JD: We have guys coming here three, four times a week, for lunch and then they come for happy hour.

SL: And then, I wanna hear about if there's too much butter in the Brussels sprouts, I wanna hear about if they had to wait an extra five minutes. That's what I wanna hear about. I don't wanna hear about the two or three times that someone came in anonymously and had supposedly 15 dishes. Which I've never seen anyone do. I kinda laugh about it, because there's nothing you can do. You can come in and sit right across from me and have the exact same meal and you'll have a different view than I did. We're not gonna change our whole perception of how we do business because of someone's review.

JD: I think it was Mario Batali who said that when the reviews are good you really pay attention, and when they're not so good you just ignore them.

What are some of the challenges you ran into in the first year here?
SL: The truth is, it's challenging every day. Every time you think that you've hit a home run, whether John at the Waverly, or the Lion or the Windsor, you'll have a blip. And for me, I panic. And I do every day when I see something I didn't expect.

JD: We had a very challenging summer. It was quiet, quieter than we thought it would be. And now it's much busier than we thought it would be.

SL: You have to stay on top of it, you just do.

JD: I think the key is a great environment. People who really, really care about the people sitting in the booths. Creating just a fantastic experience. That, to me is the most important thing. When you walk in, people smile at you. Say, "How are you this evening? Can I get you a drink? Can I get you this, can I get you that? May I take your coat?" It's old-fashioned bending over backwards for people, that's what we believe in. It's just old-fashioned good service. No tricks.

SL: Especially on the Upper East Side, everyone warned us: "Oh, you're gonna hate it, they're very tough..." They're the most loyal people in the world. You go there and you feel like you have 17 grandmothers. You walk in and there are the same people there at 6:00, 5:00, three days a week. We had a challenging time because when you go downtown people are used to waiting. You walk into a place and they say 10 to 15 minutes, you're actually happy. You try to pull that on the Upper East Side and you'll never see them again. That's the whole thing. We're very lucky that every time we open a place, it's always been a lot of people showing up. But we're always like, "Why are they here? And how do you keep them?" That's what we're trying to fine-tune every time.

What's next?
SL: 22nd Street is our next project, yeah [ed. note: That's the restaurant planned for the former Mr. West space]. We're opening an Italian concept. Which, ironically, we're Italian and we don't have an Italian concept. So we're excited about that.

How do you juggle so many restaurants? And is there a point where you'll say, "Ok, no more"?
SL: I mean, we're doing hotels now, that's our big thing, so we'll see. Always in our life there's going to be a food component, a beverage component.

JD: I dunno. I ask myself that a lot, when? It's not now, I'll tell you that. Because it's fun. The business, opening places is great fun. And when you see it come together it's very, very gratifying. And very cool. The menu's coming together, and the design's coming together, and the construction. You can't even imagine some days that it's gonna ever get finished or that it's ever gonna open, and then one day it all comes together. And it's just a very cool business in that sense. Really it's a very creative business. He talks about numbers, but he's very creative at putting these things together, because it's not easy. There's a lot of moving parts.
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Bill's Food & Drink

57 E 54th St, New York, NY